If you have a choice between two foods — one that’s “regular” and one that’s low-fat — it’s better to choose the low-fat version, right?
Not necessarily. There’s a lot more to a food’s overall health value than whether it can be considered low fat. The low-fat mentality is so ingrained in our culture that most of us reach for these products without even thinking, but in some cases, they could be worse for you — and actually contribute to more weight gain — than their regular counterparts.
So what gives? There are a few things to keep in mind here. The first is that some fats are good for you, and are necessary for certain functions throughout the body. The fats found in foods such as olive oil, avocados, fatty fish — even butter — have certain health benefits. Healthy fats promote brain health, improve skin, help fight depression, and balance hormones.
Some vitamins — vitamins A, D, E, and K — are also fat soluble. This means they require fat in order to be absorbed by the body. You may be at risk of deficiency for these important vitamins if your fat intake is too low. So no matter how healthy your meal may be, if you aren’t eating some fat with it, you likely aren’t absorbing all of the nutrients.
Another important thing to remember about low-fat foods is that when the fat is removed, other ingredients — usually sugar — are added to make up for the flavor that’s lost. And sugar is what you want to watch out for if you’re trying to lose weight. Excess sugar in the bloodstream is converted into fat through a process called lipogenesis, so it can be stored for energy to use later. But if you’re trying to lose weight, the last thing you want is for your body to create more fat!
Fat is also digested more slowly, so it will help you feel full longer and eat less — whereas foods that are high in sugar will cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a crash that will leave you hungry again soon after eating.
Watch out for these common low-fat traps disguised as healthy foods:
- Yogurt is a classic example. It’s widely regarded as healthy, but some containers of yogurt have as much sugar as a bottle of soda! Choose two-percent or regular yogurt instead of fat-free, and look for Greek yogurt, which is often lower in sugar. Watch out for fruit-flavored yogurt, which is usually high in sugar. You’re better off buying plain yogurt and adding your own fruit.
- Egg substitutes that are made with just egg whites leave out the most nutrient-rich part of the egg. The yolk is packed with zinc, iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, and protein, which will also help you feel full. Recent studies have debunked the myth that eggs are connected to heart disease, so go ahead — eat the whole thing!
- Pretzels are often regarded as a healthy, low-fat snack. But pretzels are typically made with refined flour, which contains no nutritional value and spikes your blood sugar. If you’re craving something salty, you’re better off with some nuts or sunflower seeds.
- Cheese makes a great snack when you’re feeling hungry — the combination of fat and protein can control hunger for hours and even help you cut down your calorie consumption at later meals. But low-fat cheeses are usually loaded with preservatives. Avoid mass-produced, vacuum-sealed cheeses and get good-quality cheese sliced fresh at the deli counter.
- Most peanut butter contains the same type of sugar that’s found in cake frosting — and low-fat versions have even more sugar added. Your peanut butter really shouldn’t contain very many ingredients — all-natural versions often contain just peanuts and salt.
- There’s nothing healthy about blended coffee drinks, even if you order a “light” version. They still contain about a full meal’s worth of carbs and calories. A grande mocha frappuccino from Starbucks contains 61g of carbs and 59g of sugar — even if it’s made with nonfat milk and no whipped cream. If you can’t drink your coffee black, ask for coffee with steamed coconut milk instead — it’s highly nutritious and adds a little bit of natural sweetness.
- Sugar is often the first ingredient listed in salad dressings. Choose an olive-oil based dressing, or even use plain olive oil and add your own herbs and spices. You can also add avocado to your salad for another healthy source of monounsaturated fats.
- Low-fat frozen meals. “Healthy” frozen meals are often loaded with sugar, preservatives, and sodium. If you need the convenience of quick meals, try making your own ahead of time — cook extra when you’re making dinner and save it for lunch the next day, or make a batch of meals on Sunday and freeze them for the whole week.
Need help meeting your health and weight-loss goals? Garcia Weight Loss and Wellness Centers offer comprehensive, personalized weight-loss programs backed by expert support. Contact us for a no-cost consultation to learn more!]
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on May 30, 2017